Normal People director Lenny Abrahamson on making people feel during lockdown

The Irish director talks about adapting the popular novel for TV, depicting intimacy and why this story became a hit.

Normal People director Lenny Abrahamson on making people feel during lockdown

The stakes were high for the TV adaptation of Normal People, the 2018 novel by Irish author Sally Rooney that became a literary sensation. Yet no-one could have predicted the extraordinary circumstances in which the series would be released – at the height of lockdown and the coronavirus crisis. The show, which follows an intense love story between Connell and Marianne, has become a cultural phenomenon while the nation was in isolation and increasingly tuned in to TV and film. 

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson shot the first half of the 12-part series. Before Normal People, he was best known for directing Room, the Academy Award-nominated film based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue. His other work includes Frank, Garage and Adam & Paul, and he got his start by making ads for brands such as Carlsberg. 

From his home in Dublin, Abrahamson spoke to Campaign about what commercials taught him about filmmaking, depicting intimacy on screen and why the Normal People story has resonated so deeply with people during lockdown. 

How has lockdown been for you and has it affected your creativity?

Nothing like this has happened before, so every aspect of it is new. It’s particularly odd when you're releasing a show or a film at this time, because so much of what normally surrounds that is social – it’s launches and events and travel and festivals and press junkets, and seeing your colleagues as well. On the one hand, it’s been exciting because the show has landed so well with people and sort of blew up, but at the same time that’s all still happening from the privacy of your own bedroom or kitchen. 

One thing I was hoping to achieve in lockdown was to get some writing and thinking done, and that has been trickier because actually I’ve been incredibly busy. The key to it is to maintain some discipline. I miss the stimulus of other people and life passing you by and all of that richness, and it’s hard to operate when that’s taken away. 

Early in your career, you directed a lot of ads. How has that experience shaped you as a filmmaker? 

It really teaches you. My film school was watching films and making commercials. Even though you're working on projects and scripts that are not personal to you and are in the service of somebody else’s brand, the process of going through taking something from script, working on the script with the agency, casting it, working with a proper professional crew, having to deliver something of the right length which has the tone that it needs to have – all of that is incredibly useful to somebody who is trying to learn their craft. It also means that you end up working in genres and styles that aren’t native to you, but it’s great to have that experience. 

I got to sort of play around making commercials. One of the problems with first-time filmmakers is that they’re desperate to show all of their tricks, so first features can be overwrought and too eager. Having got a lot of flashy filmmaking out of my system through making commercials, I was able to concentrate on the inner truthfulness of the first feature, and that was a good thing. 

Do you think the trend of ‘branded entertainment’ can work?

I think it can work if the relationship is clear to an audience and it feels like the brand is not over-controlling the piece. I’m uneasy about it at a personal level because I like the clarity of either making a commercial or something of my own. The bit in the middle can be a little uncomfortable. I haven’t seen any [branded entertainment pieces] that I've really loved. I’ve always felt that it was a kind of uneasy marriage. 

In your earlier films, were there particular themes you were drawn to?

They’re generally extremely character-focused; my interest is trying to create characters that you can’t easily define. I work a lot with characters who find it very hard to integrate with other people. That’s been a theme I’ve constantly gone back to: people who are on the outside of things. 

Then, stylistically, the concern with intimacy and trying to capture that sense of someone’s presence, so that it seems less like the audience is being presented with a pre-digested take but are instead allowed to breathe with the characters. That’s motivated me all the time: how to use filmmaking to capture an authentic encounter with other people. 

Also something I’ve tried to do is to play with the expectations of an audience around how stories should run. People are so familiar with watching films and television, and the patterns are so well-known, that a viewer will project it ahead of you and complete the circle. A lot of film is just about delivering that in a pleasing way, but I’ve always preferred thinking about how you can open a viewer up by not doing what is expected and by making it feel like it’s a certain kind of thing and then carefully allowing it to turn into something else.

In Room, it feels like you're watching a story of imprisonment and escape, but really it’s not that. Putting the escape in the middle of the film is the radical thing. What you realise is that it’s really about parenting and a whole load of other things. The fact that a film doesn’t go where it's expected to go opens a viewer up to a deeper experience of what does happen. 

What did you love about Normal People and why did you want to direct the adaptation?

There’s the intimacy of the characters which [Rooney] captures extraordinarily between Connell and Marianne. You can absolutely feel the breathing quality of that relationship in her writing. But there’s also the intimacy of the reader’s experience. She manages to bring you very close somehow and yet it’s hard to say how she does it because she writes really simply. That chimes with the way I like to work. 

It’s also interesting to see the generation that she’s writing about taken seriously. Often, particularly in TV, depictions of young adults and first sex are usually turned into this massive glossy problem, or it’s funny and just points out how ridiculous we all are when we’re that age. But the book reminds you of how profound the experience is. There’s a truth to the idea that maybe it’s the most present and alive people are. A chance to produce something for television which was different to other stuff out there about people of this age was very exciting. 

And it’s an Irish story. I’m really tuned into the world that it’s depicting. 

How did you approach the challenge of bringing this story to screen when so much of the novel’s action is internal? 

Trying to tell any story on screen about complicated people presents you with the same problem, even if it’s not adapted from a book. Cameras are pretty dumb instruments, in that they just record what’s on the outside and they don’t differentiate; you have to do a lot of work to make them pick out detail. It’s different when a writer sits down, because they can describe exactly the things they want to be in the readers’ minds and leave out everything else. 

I always remind myself just how incredibly expressive people are – in their body language, facial expressions, voices and behaviour – and how good we are at interpreting that, because that’s what we do every day with the people who are around us. That’s where great actors and great screenwriting come in; all of those things accumulate to provide an experience of internality. It is amazing how it’s possible when you think about what a camera really is. 

You just have to use all of the techniques and skills that you have in the language that you know to transpose the thing that’s happening in the novel. You can’t copy it exactly; you have to reconstruct it.

The show is filled with moments of quiet and stillness. How did the use of silence help you tell the story?

You need those spaces to let the things that have happened sit with you. Those spaces are really important; otherwise you’re forced to give the whole idea in the scene and it would have to become too direct and broad, because there would be no time to let an audience think about it. Giving that space allows for a much subtler style of filmmaking. It’s risky as well, because if there isn’t anything really there, then those spaces just become dead, and that’s what it is to watch something that doesn’t have life and becomes boring.

That’s probably part of what struck people so much [about the show]. Things we’re watching on screen now tend to be so fast and packed. If you let yourself watch it for a little while and it starts to work on you, there's an experience of being spoken to in a more intimate voice that seems to have really landed with people. 

What did you look for when casting [the main actors] Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, and what was it like directing them? 

I was just looking for somebody who feels right in the room. It’s hard to define. You have to believe them and you have to be excited by what they’re doing. There’s an absolutely brilliant feeling of it just being right and you get this sort of tingle where you're dying to get them in front of the camera. They make you start to think differently about scenes and what that would mean. 

I look for actors whose performances are subtle and who themselves create the sort of space in the performance that mirrors the space that exists in the execution. Both these actors have those qualities; there’s no bombast or false intensity. They act with subtlety and insight, and they really listen. It’s a whole bunch of things that make the lightbulb go off in your head when you see them.  

I would help shape and shift and remind and find versions of things that felt right for the scenes, but the fundamental creative chemistry [between Mescal and Edgar-Jones] was there from the beginning. It’s amazing if it is, because you don't have to tell the audience that these people are in love with each other. You can just let people watch this creative chemistry on screen and it will land.

How did you approach the direction of the sex scenes and intimacy? What do you think it was about those scenes that have garnered such a positive response?

We always said that we didn’t want there to feel like a massive change of approach between the scenes where they’re speaking to each other and where they're making love. The intimate scenes are as much about character and the way that the relationship is working at that time. It’s not like, OK, now we’re going to do a sex scene in the way that you might do a car chase or something like that. By approaching them with that kind of clear eye on character and that relationship and the beauty of what’s happening between them, that’s what feels different. 

We worked in a really careful way, which made everybody feel that they were part of the creative process and made them feel safe and heard, and that allowed for us to work in a way that’s very truthful. That’s why I suspect the scenes are so strong for people, because they don't feel like they're just there to be controversial or there as decoration. It feels like it’s really essential and a massively earned experience. 

Finally, what do you think it is about this story that has resonated with people now?

As we have been in lockdown and the experiences that we take for granted with other people are suddenly called into question, perhaps people are anxious and more open emotionally to things. 

There is this tremendous power in a love story. With all of the renaissance in TV and various genres, there hasn't actually been much like this that just deals with this fundamental moment for people. 

The last thing, probably, is that the style is deceptive. If people go with it, the simplicity and the authenticity of the show eventually takes hold. We’ve managed to move a more nuanced style of filmmaking into the mainstream. I think people are taken aback by how deeply that can make you feel. 

Abrahamson is commercially represented by Ruffian